“Ghost in The Shell” began in 1989 as a manga series by Japanese artist Masamune Shirow. The story follows Public Security Section Nine, a police force of cyborgs fighting cyber-terrorism in a fictionalized, futuristic, 21st century city.
In this world, some of its inhabitants are equipped with cyber-brains or prosthetic bodies. The protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, has both. She’s Section Nine’s leader, hell-bent on catching the bad guy hacker of the story, The Puppet Master. He has the capability to hack the brains of those with cyber-brains, and can embed false memories into his victim’s brains. Herein, we have the title: the “ghost” being the awareness and identity of the affected human prey, and the “shell” being the host body. The series was a success in Japan. It spun off two manga series, an Original Video Animation series, a few video games, an anime and two films that “spin-off” from the series original arc.
Aligning with the modern film trend of nostalgia and re-boots, in 2008, DreamWorks and Paramount studios bought the rights to make a live-action adaptation of the original manga. Casting announcements were made years later in 2015. While the bill boasted a largely Asian cast in alignment with the original franchise, it was confirmed that Scarlett Johansson would play the female lead – now known only as “Major” instead of Kusanagi. This casting choice raised outcry almost immediately from fans. An online petition was started, and over 100,000 signatures called for a re-cast. Fans wanted to see an Asian actress play a character that was originally (and rightfully) Asian, instead of a white woman.
Shortly after the casting was confirmed, the website ScreenCrush reported that DreamWorks and Paramount employed visual effects technology that altered Scarlett Johansson’s appearance to make her appear “more Asian.” While the website’s sources were unnamed, and Paramount vehemently denied the claims, the message left a bad taste in the mouth of audiences.
Whitewashing Asian characters in Hollywood is a long-existing tradition. Box offices from the past few months are chock full of titles that fall into the same issue in representation: Emma Stone played a character of Chinese and Hawaiian descent in the 2015 film “Aloha.” The film adaptation of the comic “Dr. Strange” features Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, an Asian man in the book. Matt Damon is the lead in “The Great Wall,” a film set in historic China.
Online platforms aren’t exempt from this either, as this year we will see Netflix’s adaptation of the hyper-popular manga and anime series “Death Note,” featuring white lead, Nat Wolff. Hell, even the Japan-set animated film “Kubo and the Two Strings” employs the voice talents of mostly white actors. The list goes on and on. When it comes to representation in American-made films, the 2017 Oscars might have felt like a win. The best picture winner, “Moonlight,” was definitely a victory for visibility of black actors and characters. However, Asian representation is not seeing the same strides in that direction.
Curiously enough, Shirow, “Ghost in the Shell’s” original creator, does not see an issue with the whitewashing in the new film. “Her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name Motoko Kusanagi and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actor must portray her.” In a panel discussion at the Committee of 100 Conference, “Twin Peaks” actor Joan Chen argued imposing any casting decision regarding race on a director inhibits creativity, and should be avoided. However, Constance Wu, actress in the comedy sitcom “Fresh off the Boat,” opposed that idea, suggesting instead that American audiences just cannot imagine a non-white hero. She further argues that filmmakers should make an effort to give visibility to the Asian hero character to help correct this institutional racism. Erasing the voices and appearances of Asian people in an industry as wide-reaching to the masses as modern, multi-million dollar film productions has a strong potential for danger. Furthermore lies the question: don’t we see that it is possible to make a successful film that represents the culture and identity of Asian characters – “Big Hero 6,” anyone? “Pacific Rim?”
Who knows if we’ll ever come to an agreement as to what is “right” as a culture in creating film that casts white characters in non-white character roles. For what it is worth, “Ghost in the Shell” chocked up to a box-office failure (the film only grossed $18.5 million on its opening weekend, of the $110 million it costed to make. It also only scraped a 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Maybe this is a response from fans, from those who signed the petition and decided to simply not pay to go and see a movie they felt did an injustice to the representation of Asian characters, Asian culture and how we move forward in our societal standards of representation.